What does it take to succeed in addiction recovery and remain sober for the long run?
Arguably, you have to have your mind, body, and spirit in alignment. Meaning that you need to have a holistic approach to recovery.
Popular wisdom suggests that spirituality is the one and only key to sobriety.
I have found holistic health to be a more accurate answer, however.
Why you need a holistic approach to recovery
Spirituality is definitely important in recovery. But it is just one slice of the overall recovery “pie.”
The other slices make up the rest of a holistic health approach: Physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
If you are seriously lacking in any one of those areas, then your recovery can definitely suffer, even to the point that it causes you to relapse.
I cannot tell you how many of my peers in early recovery relapsed due to a relationship that went bad. Nearly all of them! At least that is what it seemed like at first.
Later on in my recovery journey, however, I noticed another startling surprise about relapse:
It happened to a lot of alcoholics after they got sick or injured.
That really shocked me, and I had to watch it happen a few times to people that I knew before it really sunk in. They would get sick, or their health would spiral out of control, and before you knew it they had their excuse to relapse. Life became overwhelming for them because their physical health had deteriorated on them to an unmanageable point.
You would not think that this would be a threat if you were in top notch spiritual condition. But I learned otherwise by watching my peers in recovery. Some of the people that I considered to be very spiritual were the ones who relapsed after getting sick. It really opened my eyes to the importance of the holistic approach.
When I first got into recovery I wanted so badly to know all of the secrets of how to remain sober forever. And the answer that I was hearing over and over again was that the solution was spiritual, and that all you really needed was this super connection with your higher power. But in reality I was seeing something different from that, and what I was noticing was the holistic part of addiction and recovery. It was more than just a spiritual malady, and that required a different approach than what I was being taught. It required a holistic approach.
With that said, let’s talk about specifics for a moment in terms of mind, body, and spirit. What exactly allows us to get those things into alignment?
How to get your mind into alignment: Zero tolerance policy
So let’s start out with the mind.
When I was in very early recovery I made a decision. My decision was private and I told no one about this for several years. The reason I kept it quiet was because I did not want to appear stupid to others.
Today, I no longer care about this, because what I did back then worked so well for me. My decision was this:
I made an agreement with myself that I was not going to use drugs or alcohol no matter what. It was a “zero tolerance policy” that I made with myself. If I had thoughts of drinking or of taking drugs, or if I had fond memories of what it was like to be drunk or high in the good old days, I would shut those thoughts down immediately and instantly redirect myself. This was part of my zero tolerance policy, I was not allowed to fantasize about drinking or using drugs at all. If I “caught myself” I would simply redirect my thoughts.
So this was my decision about how to manage my own thoughts. It was a leap forward in consciousness, a decision to watch my mind rather than to just “be” my mind.
This is important, because I think we all need to find a way to become the watcher of our own thoughts so that we can take some of that power back. If you don’t have control over your thoughts then addiction is probably going to win the fight in the end.
So this was how I chose to manage my thoughts. I suppose the alternative may have been what they were teaching in AA, and I sort of went along with much of that stuff, but really it was my zero tolerance policy that helped me to manage my own thoughts about addiction.
After raising my awareness for a few weeks and watching my thoughts carefully, it became second nature to avoid fantasizing or romanticizing my addiction. I simply did not go there any more, I had learned how to shut those thoughts down completely. My mind recoiled at the idea of relapse like a hand does to a hot burner. It was this way because I trained my brain to react this way. It was all based on a decision to get my mind made up about addiction. Zero tolerance. It worked for me, so I went with it, and after a few years I gained the confidence to talk about the idea with others. It’s not silly if it actually works for someone!
How to get your body into alignment: holistic health, fitness, sleep, nutrition, etc.
A few years after learning how to get my mind straight in early recovery, I eventually learned how to get my body into alignment as well.
Now let’s stop for a moment here and talk about alignment. The idea is simple enough, we want all of our actions to be moving us towards the same set of goals.
For example, if you want to buy a nice home in the country some day, but you blow all of your money on frivolous purchases, then your goals are not in alignment with each other. You are working against yourself because your goals conflict with each other.
So what we want to do is to figure out what our ultimate goals in recovery are, and then make sure that our actions every day are in alignment with those ultimate goals.
For me that is pretty simple, it comes down to one word:
Recovery is all about health. You sobered up to get healthier. Your decision to stop drinking is a decision to improve the health in your life.
And so it is with all of recovery: It is all about improving yourself and your life in a million different ways.
Physical health, social health, mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health. Each one of those are important.
If something increases your health in one or more of these areas, then that is probably “good.” If it detracts from your health, then it is probably “bad.”
Pretty simple stuff. Our measuring stick for success in recovery has to do with our health, happiness, and sobriety. They all go hand in hand. If you are unhealthy then you are not likely to be happy. And if you are not sober then you are definitely not healthy or happy.
So this is where the idea of “alignment” comes into play.
At some point, I was about 2 or 3 years into my sobriety, and people were basically saying to me: “You should get into shape physically at this point.”
And I was wondering why they suggested that. It made no sense to me. Wasn’t the solution, after all, spiritual?
But as I learned over time, the solution is holistic, not spiritual. And so in order to be in alignment, your physical health should improve in order to match the spiritual progress you are making as well.
And so I finally started to exercise. I started distance running every day, building up slowly but surely. And after doing this for a few grueling months, something clicked. Suddenly I was in decent shape. And a light bulb went off for me. This was alignment! Suddenly my physical health was matching the rest of the progress I had made in other areas of my life. And that was a really fantastic feeling.
It felt amazing to get into shape. It felt amazing to be energized, to look forward to jogging outside, to be able to enjoy movement and exercise.
Perhaps the ironic thing about this revelation that I had was that I found distance running to be spiritual as well! I found it to be meditative to run through the countryside with the wind in my face and the open road in front of me. Not only was it spiritual, but it was emotionally cleansing as well.
Again, it was all about alignment. Instead of sitting around and being idle every day, I was putting my body into motion and learning how to feel good about myself. It was a very liberating and energizing transition that nothing could have prepared me for. People had told me that I should exercise, but I didn’t understand why or what the point was. And no amount of verbal convincing could have ever swayed me to make exercise a priority, until I had actually whipped myself into shape and felt the rewards and the benefits for myself.
And that brings up another important concept: When you start to get into alignment, each additional piece that you slide into place will make an amazing impact on your life. So if you quit drinking physically, that is one thing, and it certainly helps. But then you also get your mind straight, and you eventually get relief from the mental obsession, and the cravings go away–that part is huge! And then your social circles change and you eliminate toxic relationships and surround yourself with positive people in recovery for additional support. And then the selfishness goes away and your learn to be happy in sobriety, which is part of the spiritual transformation.
So all of this stuff does not happen all at once, immediately, overnight, the same week that you go through detox. Wouldn’t it be nice if it did?
But it doesn’t. It takes a bit of time. Don’t worry–it doesn’t take all that long, really, and you will undoubtedly enjoy the ride itself. Learn to appreciate the process itself, to enjoy the discovery, the learning, the exploration. My sponsor in NA has a saying: “Everything in recovery is a process.” He loves to talk about process. And he’s right, really. Getting into alignment with all of these various parts of your life is a process, and it all takes time and effort. It doesn’t happen instantly.
How to get your spirit into alignment: Practicing gratitude
The widespread solution and accepted wisdom in the world of addiction recovery is that you need to have a spiritual transformation.
Find God, clean house, and help others. That is the basic model of traditional recovery.
So what exactly is this spiritual transformation, and what does it look like in the end?
I think, to some extent, we all take a different path to “get there.” But in the end we expect the outcomes to be somewhat consistent.
For example, one of the fundamentals of the spiritual experience is a shift from selfishness to gratitude.
This shift is so important, I would argue, that it could be almost the entire thrust of your spiritual efforts.
In other words, you don’t necessarily have to try as hard as you think in this area, as long as you are putting your efforts into the correct things. And that means that you need to practice gratitude, each and every day.
This is how you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to spirituality. The more you can master the art of gratitude, the further ahead you will be.
People who are grateful do not, as a general rule, end up relapsing.
No, the moment of relapse is a selfish moment. You are the opposite of grateful when you decide to relapse. So if you are interested in remaining sober, if you are interested in preventing relapse, then practicing gratitude should be of extreme importance to you.
So then, when do you practice this gratitude stuff? How does it work?
You should practice it daily. This is because you could potentially relapse on any given day. Therefore you must protect yourself every day.
How do you practice gratitude? What is the process?
It is essentially a training process for your mind. Much like the zero tolerance policy is about training your brain not to dwell on “the good old days,” practicing gratitude is about teaching your brain to look for the hidden lessons in life, the silver lining, the added bonus. It is an experiment in optimism. It is about training your brain to dig for the gratitude.
Your brain may sweat when you do this. For example, let’s say someone put a gun to your head and told you to write down 50 things you are grateful for right now. You have 7 minutes, go!
That is what it is like when your brain sweats. You push and push and you write down everything that you can think of. You keep racking your brain to come up with more reasons that you are grateful.
And then you get done writing down your 50 things and you think “that wasn’t too bad really.”
So here is my challenge to you, if you really want to take your spirituality to the next level:
Do this every day. Do it twice a day even. In the morning and at night. Or maybe every day when you finish your lunch. Write down 50 things you are grateful for.
Why 50 things and not 20 things? To make your brain sweat more. You are training your gratitude muscle by lifting heavy weights every day. If your list is only 10 items long you won’t get as strong. If you do a list of 50 every day then you will become very good at it over time.
Afterwards, tear up your list and throw it away. Crazy, right? All that hard work for nothing!
But it’s not for nothing. You get something for your practice. You are practicing gratitude. Of course you throw the lists away. They are just for practice.
Then, 2 years later when the crap hits the fan in your life, and you are down on your knees and wondering how things could spin out of control so quickly, you will be able to summon that gratitude instantly. You will have built up that gratitude muscle over time by making those lists every day, pushing yourself to be able to find the positive, find the hidden bonus, to find the silver lining in things.
And that can save your life. That can stop you from drinking. That can prevent relapse.
And on top of all that, practicing gratitude will just plain make you happy.
In fact, it is the decision to be happy. Rather than hoping that the universe just showers you with good fortune and happiness, you can practice gratitude every day and simply decide to be happy anyway. Regardless of what is happening or not happening in your life. The decision to be happy is the decision to be grateful, to practice gratitude.
This is because gratitude is essentially an attitude…it is a way of looking at things. And you can choose your attitude.
If you are just hoping for good fortune to make you happy, you will never be truly happy. Instead, you must choose gratitude. This is how to get your spiritual side in alignment with the rest of your recovery.
What will be different in your life when you achieve this alignment
So here is what will be different in life when you achieve this alignment stuff:
Everything in your life will change once you are living this sort of existence. This is because the rewards that you get in your recovery will start to compound over time in ways that you cannot possibly predict.
So it is not really that everything changes. Not literally, anyway.
But in a sense, it will feel like everything changes when you live this way, because you will be surprised and delighted when you start to see the results of your personal growth.
The rewards are explosive, they are amazing, and they start to combine with each other in interesting ways.
For example, when I finally quit smoking cigarettes in my recovery, I got the strength and the discipline to set some really aggressive goals for myself. I did this because I finally understood that I could reach those goals. It was only a matter of focus. So I took what I learned in one area of my recovery and I applied it to another area. This was really exciting to me because it showed me that I had a lot more potential in my life than I thought I had. It was exciting.
When you are living in alignment in these different areas of your life, you will be much healthier. Life is so much easier, it is smoother, nothing is a major problem or headache. Sure, there are still problems that pop up from time to time, there are still bad days here and there. But they no longer drag you down, because you have build up so much strength and resilience in all of these areas of your life. You can bounce back from various setbacks in your life because you are stronger in several different areas: emotionally, physically, spiritually, and so on.
What do you think, are you living in alignment today by using a holistic approach to sobriety? How is that working out for your recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!